Academic journal article The Geographical Review

To Catch a Coney Fish with Bare Hands

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

To Catch a Coney Fish with Bare Hands

Article excerpt

Three years have passed since Ruthie last saw her younger sister. Ruthie worries about Mary constantly; her fears churn deep inside her belly like the current of the big river. Last night, Ruthie's daughter K'aii came into the room while Ruthie was sleeping. The moon was still high and watchful in the inky sky, and Wail gently touched her mother's face. "Mary!" Ruthie woke with a start, wide-eyed in the darkness, the delicate outline of her daughter's face illuminated in the twilight. "No, mama, it's me," K'aii said, her voice soft and searching. "I had a nightmare."

Mary had followed her sister as far as she could. Then one morning, years ago, Mary left quietly, catching a southbound charter with a survey crew who'd come north to draw plans for the highway expansion. Once carefully contained villages were to be connected to the outside world by an all-season road. As she picked berries with other village women, Ruthie watched the plane climb higher and higher in the sky. Shielding her eyes, Ruthie squinted at its aluminum shell, glimmering as it darted between clouds. If she had known then that her sister Mary sat quietly within the plane's small body, she would have chased its shadow through the brush, straining to catch it between her hands, straining to tether it and Mary to the ground. To the ground of their village. To the berries she was picking.

Ruthie was born on the land. Like her mother and father. Like her grandparents and all the people who came before. Out in the bush, at their summer camp. Her mother was hanging fish to dry when her water broke, dripping down onto the moss beneath her feet. Ruthie's children don't believe her when she tells this story, but she remembers her birth. She remembers all the pushing, all the commotion. She remembers her grandmother's voice muffled outside the tight skin drum of her mother's heaving belly. And then the smell of wood smoke and the blurriness of the light streaming through her eyes, wet and shiny in their newness. And she remembers, at last, the warmth of her mother's voice, and of her breast. Ruthie clung to the memories of this warmth during all those years away at school. Away from her family, away from the soothing music of their laughter, her grandparents' stories shared around the fire, the smell of spruce boughs and smoky hides, and the taste of dry meat and tart berries.

The time away at school is Ruthie's story alone. I could not do that story justice. She would tell you that it was at school that she was taught not to speak her language. She would tell you that there, in that school, the smallest seed of sadness was planted. That seed grew and grew and grew. Like weeds filling empty space that took hold the day she was taken away. Ruthie would tell you her own stories.

But there are stories that I too have seen, stories of a loss so great that it has seeped deep down into the muskeg, like blood spilled by both caribou and human, a throbbing sting that resonates across this stretch of taiga and Precambrian shield I call my home but is not my homeland. This is not my story, not fully, but it is a story that surrounds me and a story that I am called upon to share, a story that hurts to tell but that hurts more to leave untold. This is a story of loss, but it is also one of love, of family, and of finding the way home again.

By the time Ruthie was three years old her family was spending less and less time in the bush. The animals still came to her father's trapline, yes, but the men at the trading post told him that the furs were no longer selling for what they once did. By then, other families had begun to live year-round in the village, where, if they stayed, the government was building houses and giving people food and rations. "We're building northern suburbs, just like in the south," the Indian agent told the people, following the instructions he had received from Ottawa. When he first read the notice, he shook his head. …

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